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  • March 16, 2022

    Municipal Courts: Justice Delivered Locally

    When your clients need representation in municipal court, it’s good to know the “big picture.” Municipal Judge and Circuit Court Commissioner Jason Hanson provides an overview of municipal courts and offers some practice tips.

    Hon. Jason J. Hanson

    court room

    While criminal law practitioners are naturally well-informed about practice in circuit court, those who don’t regularly handle traffic offense cases may be less familiar with municipal courts and their role in the unified court system.

    However, it is not uncommon for a client to have matters pending in municipal court, whether due to charges split between the two types of court or due to the trend towards charging more minor matters as ordinance violations rather than crimes.

    The purpose of this article is to give a basic introduction to municipal courts and provide a few important practice points.

    Municipal Court Authority

    The Wisconsin Constitution generally confers municipal courts with jurisdiction over proceedings arising from violations of municipal ordinances, with the details spelled out by statute.

    Jason Hanson Jason Hanson, U.W. 1998, is a Dane County court commissioner and municipal judge for the villages of DeForest and Windsor.

    About 240 municipal courts handle approximately 500,000 cases per year, ranging from parking violations and juvenile offenses to traffic offenses and other ordinance violations, such as retail theft, disorderly conduct, and drug possession.

    The courts range from the City of Milwaukee, with three full-time judges, to much smaller courts that meet only once a month or less.

    Most courts cover one municipality, while there are also multi-jurisdictional courts that handle cases from as many as fifteen municipalities. Some municipalities require the judge to be an attorney, but this is not required by statute, and about half of the municipal judges in Wisconsin are not attorneys. The judges, whether an attorney or not, are subject to the Wisconsin judicial ethics code and mandatory judicial education.

    Municipal Court Proceedings

    In many ways, municipal court practice is similar to that in circuit court for non-criminal traffic and forfeiture offenses.

    Cases begin with an initial appearance, and pleas can be entered in person or by mail. Many courts allow for pleas and other materials to be submitted electronically, although there is no efiling system.

    Defendants in impaired driving cases may skip municipal court and have the case, including other offenses arising from the same incident, sent directly to circuit court for the purposes of a jury trial.

    There are strict deadlines for making direct transfer demands, and as discussed later, failure to meet these deadlines waives the right to later demand a jury trial, so particular attention must be paid to this. In such instances, the case permanently becomes a circuit court case with all matters handled there, just as though the case had been filed in circuit court in the first place.

    Other than in Milwaukee, there is no online tracking system resembling CCAP for cases that remain entirely in municipal court. Upon a guilty or no contest plea, the judge will impose a penalty, and these penalties, at least in adult cases, are generally limited to the imposition of a forfeiture or any applicable OWI-related consequences.

    Upon a not guilty plea, the case is usually set for a pre-trial conference with the municipal prosecutor. Suppression issues may be raised by motion and are usually heard at the time of trial, as are contested refusal proceedings or administrative suspension reviews in impaired driving cases.

    As with non-criminal matters in circuit court, a trial must be held in order to preserve appeals of suppression decisions, though these trials may be based on stipulated facts.

    Municipal Court Trials

    Trials in municipal court are always bench trials, and are governed by the rules of evidence.

    Because all municipal court proceedings are civil proceedings, there is no bar to the prosecution calling the defendant as an adverse witness. This seems to come as a surprise to some defendants and their counsel. Clients should be prepared for this possibility.

    The defendant may invoke his or her rights, without fear of contempt sanctions, if the answer would tend to inculpate them with regard to criminal activity, but the prosecution is entitled to any adverse inferences, just as in any other civil proceeding.

    Evidentiary hearings and hearings on ability to pay or motions to reopen must be recorded, though many courts record all proceedings.

    Appeals Go to Circuit Court

    Municipal court decisions are not directly appealable to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Cases go from municipal court to circuit court.

    Upon transmission to circuit court, whether following municipal court proceedings or as the result of a direct transfer, the case will be publicly viewable on CCAP, which is a consideration that should be discussed with the client.

    The statutes prescribe particular timelines for filing and serving a notice of appeal, paying appeal fees, and transmission of the record to circuit court.

    There is no bond requirement, although either court may lift the stay of judgment pending appeal. There is transcript preparation requirement, unless otherwise determined by the circuit court.

    In some instances, the circuit court acts an appellate court, but in other instances it acts as a trial court.

    If the appeal is from a case where no trial was held, such as a denial of a motion to reopen, the only available form of appeal is a record review. In this situation, the municipal court transmits to the circuit court the entirety of the record, including any recordings.

    The circuit court reviews the record, serving as an appellate court, and makes a determination based on the standard of review applicable to the issue at hand. The appellant can choose this form of review from a trial determination as well, although this is rare, because an appeal of only the trial determination is subject to a highly deferential sufficiency of evidence standard of review. It could be a viable lower cost way to seek review of a dispositive suppression determination, with a de novo standard of review, when there is no interest in further factual development of the suppression issues or in holding a full trial.

    Subject to any appeals to the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court, the circuit court’s decision to affirm or reverse the municipal court decision will be returned to municipal court, and the municipal court is responsible for any further action on the case, just as with any appellate proceeding.

    As noted in the last paragraph, the appellant can elect to invoke the circuit court’s appellate jurisdiction in cases arising from trials, but far more commonly the appellant instead seeks a new trial in circuit court. The non-appellant is also free to request a new trial in circuit court, even if a record review has been requested by the appellant. The municipal court will send at least the complaint or citations and the municipal court judgment to circuit court. Some courts send the entire record.

    There is often confusion about what types of new trial are available upon “appeal” to circuit court. The word “appeal” is in quotation marks because the circuit court is really acting as a trial court in such instances.

    In cases not involving impaired driving offenses or offenses arising from the same incident as impaired driving offenses originally filed in municipal court, the appellant may request a bench trial or a jury trial in circuit court. If the appellant selects a bench trial, the other party may request a jury trial. In cases involving impaired driving offenses, the defense may select only a bench trial, but this does not prevent the prosecution from requesting a jury trial.

    The seeming incongruity between what options are available to defendants and prosecutors in impaired driving cases is because the defendant had the right from the outset of the case to seek direct transfer to the circuit court for a jury trial. The prosecution has no such right, because conferring direct transfer rights on the municipality would allow the prosecution to avoid trial before the judge elected to serve the municipal court. The end result is that both parties have an opportunity to seek a jury trial.

    Tip: Preserving Rights to a Jury Trial

    All of this leads to an important practice point: If your client wishes to preserve the right to a jury trial in an impaired driving case or for charges from the same incident, you must make a direct transfer request at the beginning of the case!

    This is distinguishable from situations where a criminal impaired driving charge is lodged in circuit court, but citations related to the same incident are filed in municipal court. In such instances, there is no opportunity for direct transfer, so the entire range of appeal options apply to the citations heard in municipal court.

    A Disposition Option

    Wisconsin’s community-based municipal courts allow for local resolution of disputes, often involving prompt and convenient proceedings for parties and witnesses.

    Municipal courts provide an option for dispositions that do not appear on online databases and allow for diversion of more minor matters from resource-burdened circuit courts, district attorney offices, public defenders, and appointed counsel.

    Lawyers who handle cases in municipal court will find that these courts are professional, fair, and effective.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Criminal Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Criminal Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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    Criminal Law Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Michael O'Hear and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Criminal Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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